Denton Fire Chief Ross Chadwick celebrated his 67th birthday in a way he will never forget: by stepping down after nearly 19 years of service in the position.
Chadwick said he made the move so he could focus on his goals, but he also just felt like it was the right time to move on.
“New leadership will bring a breath of fresh air into the organization,” Chadwick said while taking a break from packing Wednesday. “There are lots of younger fire chiefs that are really successful who would welcome a move to the department.”
He will miss the department, but he has complete confidence that whoever fills his spot will be “more than qualified” and may even be better than him, Chadwick said with a grin.
Chadwick has served in his profession for more than 40 years.
After three tours of duty in Vietnam with the Air Force, Chadwick returned to his home in Southern California, where he saw an ad for a firefighting job.
“When I saw the ad, I thought, ‘That sounds like a fun job,’” he remembered. “Never had [being a firefighter] crossed my mind before that.”
Chadwick and more than 300 other people took the recruitment test one Saturday morning in 1970, and he scored the best of all the applicants, he said.
At 23, Chadwick kicked off his career in the fire service as an employee with the Escondido Fire Department in California before moving up the ranks. In 1988 he accepted the fire chief position in San Jacinto, California, serving six years there before taking on the fire chief’s role in Hesperia, California.
“My wife and I were looking for a better quality of life for our two daughters and we heard Texas offered good education,” Chadwick said of their decision to leave California in the mid-’90s.
That decision helped lead his family to Denton, where he began serving as fire chief in 1995.
Chadwick said the most memorable fire call in his career was his own — his home caught fire on Oct. 24, 1998, while he was out walking the family dog. His family lost everything.
“It was a real eye-opener being on the other end of the fire,” he said.
That was also the period when the department started its victim support group to aid victims of fire and other catastrophic events.
“It could range from what to do after a fire to flying someone home whose car was destroyed during a fatal accident,” Chadwick said.
The program is still in operation, but since there is no longer a citizens firefighting academy, the support group is more internal than citizen-led, he said.
“We take our customer service to heart here at the department,” Chadwick said. “Always be nice.”
There was never a dull moment in the department, Chadwick said, and his chuckles filled his office Wednesday when he reminisced about a short-lived plan in 1998 for what became known as the infamous “fat fee.”
The policy, which the City Council approved but quickly rescinded, would have imposed an extra $25 charge for ambulance service for anyone who weighed more than 300 pounds.
“It must have been a slow news day because it became instant news,” Chadwick said. “I did 51 interviews, including a half-hour with the BBC, within one week.”
The fee, he said, was proposed because it takes more workers and different equipment to move someone of that size.
“After all the public outcry, a special meeting was held the following week withdrawing the fee,” he said. “This is a story I will share with the grandkids someday.”
Ups and downs
Chadwick said achieving diversity may still be a challenge but the department has made progress.
“We have women, African-Americans, Hispanics,” he said, adding that the goal is to have hiring reflect the makeup of the city.
“I’d say while we have accomplished this task in a way, we still have a long way to go and it really still is a challenge,” he said.
The department has the best emergency management program in the state, Chadwick said, and he credits Michael Penaluna and the department’s close relationship with the Federal Emergency Management Agency with ensuring that Denton is consistently up to date on training methods, preparedness and more.
“I’m a huge advocate of strategic planning,” Chadwick said. “It all goes hand in hand. ... Keeping up with the growth and being able to interface with the city’s strategic plan that Bryan Langley [Denton’s chief financial officer and assistant city manager] has been working on is something I am proud of.”
Since Chadwick was hired as the 135th employee in the fire department 18 1/2 years ago, the agency has more than doubled in size, he said.
Today, Chadwick said, there are 307 people at the department. In addition to opening two fire stations in his career here, he has added a truck company, two engines, three ambulances and operational battalion chiefs who oversee each shift.
What he wasn’t able to achieve was the opening of a training center on 88 acres near Station 7.
“It’s my biggest disappointment, but I tried,” he said. “I hope this is something the new fire chief can accomplish.”
He said he is glad to be able to have use of the new Denton Public Safety Training Center adjacent to the Denton Police Department on Hickory Street.
“The darkroom has come a long way. ... We used to tape boxes over windows,” he said.
Chadwick said his plans include spending time with his family and some travel, but not too much.
“I don’t want to constantly be moving around,” he said.
Chadwick will be offering consulting services nationwide, and he will be speaking at the Firehouse World conference in San Diego next year.
He said if anyone asked his wife, Lu, she would say “writing is my passion.”
With one Christian nonfiction book in its second edition, Chadwick hopes to publish two additional books this year, starting with one manuscript that he is dusting off from his filing cabinet.
“It’s a leadership book I have been working on, and now that I will have the time, I should be able to finish in a few more months,” he said.
The friendships he’s made in Denton, he said, are everlasting, and he’s glad he gets to take them with him as he departs.
“Friends are asking if we are moving back to California,” he said. “We came here for quality of life, and Denton offers that. ... Most of my friendships are from work. ... We will be staying here for a while.”